We spend a lot of time and energy focusing on our verbal communication with others. We know whether it worked because we generally get immediate feedback through body language, tone of voice, and a response of how we came across. 

We don’t always use that much energy when we communicate in writing. This can lead to misunderstandings, unmet expectations, hurt feelings, and even conflict.

55% of our overall communication is non-verbal and another 38% is in our tone of voice. That leaves us with just 7% of our communication being with the words we use. Without the aid of body language and tone of voice, the odds are clearly against us when written communication is involved.

While there are many types of written correspondence, the most important one to address, especially at work, is the misuse and/or overuse of email communication. 

The purpose of an email is to communicate information that can be quickly and easily understood. It’s great for updates, sharing data, and attaching information. It’s not as good at detailing complicated information or information that leads to a discussion (those long email strings). Those conversations should be in person – or at least by phone.  

I relied heavily on email for most of my work communication. I learned that if I was getting replies back with questions or I received an unexpected response, I was probably not using email correctly. 

When you do use email correctly, it can be an effective communication tool. However, it should never be the tool you communicate with most often.

Here are my top 10 tips (most of them learned the hard way):

1. Use a specific subject line.

Use a subject line that is specific and relevant, one that can be referred to in an intuitive manner in case you want to search for it later.

2. Be concise.

Keep your email short – no more than 250 words – ever.

3. Get to the point quickly.

Your email should be written in a way that only needs to be read once in order to figure out what the main point is and if any kind of response is wanted or needed.

4. Cover only one topic.

It’s tempting to try to be efficient by loading things up, but don’t do it. Our brain wants to focus on one thing at a time. When you add items that aren’t related, they can become lost or ignored. 

5. Use plain everyday language.

Avoid big words and acronyms unless you are positive they are commonly understood and used by your audience.

6. Be clear.

Use “sound bites”: what you want, how you want it done, and by what date/time. Break up the text or use bullet points to get your message across.

7. Don’t compose an email on your smartphone.

You will make mistakes and it won’t be as clear. 

8. Always proofread twice before sending it. 

Do this even if the email is not extremely critical. A typo or word left out can create misunderstandings, frustrations, or even hurt feelings. It’s always a good idea to get in the habit of using spell check, but don’t rely solely on that. About 20 years ago I misspelled public (no “l”) in an important communication and it is still embarrassing to me to this day.

9. Watch your tone and choice of words.

Email is flat and something that seems funny to you may be misinterpreted. And never, ever use sarcasm. 

10. Don’t be in such a rush.

Also known as: Never hit “reply all”. Just don’t. Slow down. If you want more than one person to receive your reply, only re-enter the names of the people who really need to see it. 

Ask yourself this question before sending any email.

If the email you’re sending were put up on a large screen and could be read by anyone including a lawyer in a court of law:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Is it extremely clear?
  • Is it appropriate?

To learn more about how to be a better communicator, check out my online course Communication Skills for Success. For more resources, tips, and tools for leadership training, management coaching, and effective communication in the workplace follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn today.

Betty Lochner is a human resources consultant, business coach, and expert in workplace communications. She is the author of two books on communication, and a newly published journal, Intentional Gratitude.